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Book Reviews: The Sad, Sorry World of Watergate Memoirs

Posted on the 16 May 2016 by Christopher Saunders
Book Reviews: The Sad, Sorry World of Watergate MemoirsThere is no literary subgenre sadder than Watergate memoirs. It was bad enough that Richard Nixon and his cronies inflicted Watergate and its ancillary crimes upon us, let alone inspired Washington's omnipresent scandal culture. They forced us to relive it again and again, in books as whiny, turgid and intolerable as their authors.
Nixon himself penned several memoirs. RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon is thick and turgid as a phonebook, though far less reflective. Nor are Nixon's shorter, later volumes (In the Arena, No More Vietnams) more contrite. Arguing that the Democrats did similar things is no more mitigating than Nixon's rantings about the Kennedy-Jewish-Norman Lear conspiracy. It's all smug, self-pitying whining at excruciating length.
Even worse volumes come from Nixon's cronies, who parlayed their infamy into best-selling books and an endless stream of awful movies and miniseries starring washed-up Disney actors. Sadly, the below is a mere sampling of the dozens of volumes from Watergate's perpetrators, some still living and writing today.
Book Reviews: The Sad, Sorry World of Watergate MemoirsJohn Dean, White House counsel-turned-informant, leveraged a career out of ratting on his boss: two memoirs, numerous screeds bemoaning the modern state of conservatism (which he helped create) and trying to rehabilitate Warren Harding. Dean's Blind Ambition (1976) sets the dismal standard for an abysmal genre.
Dean takes us through Nixon's dirty tricks ("How can we use the existing machinery to screw our political enemies?"), the cover-up, his realization that Nixon planned to scapegoat him and his turning informant. Dean honestly describes his role in Nixon's misdeeds. But he grates when couching his betrayal as an act of conscience. Dean is less Jeffrey Wigand than Joe Valachi, selling out Nixon to save his skin.
Dean published a later volume, Lost Honor (1982), covering his time in prison and speculating on Deep Throat's identity. I haven't read this one; life's too short. In 2014, he reconstructed the cover-up in exhaustive detail in The Nixon Tapes. Blind Ambition inspired a miniseries featuring Martin Sheen as Dean and Rip Torn as a hammy Nixon, one of the few memoir-inspired dramas that's not completely terrible.
Book Reviews: The Sad, Sorry World of Watergate MemoirsJohn Ehrlichman's Witness to Power (1982) is a gossipy tome dripping resentment. Nixon's chief domestic adviser, Ehrlichman was considered the nicer of Nixon's "Berlin Wall," but it doesn't come across in this book. Ehrlichman dishes on Nixon's testy relationship with staff and cabinet members, his shabby treatment by RN and the Ervin Committee, never once showing contrition or understanding what he did.
Ehrlichman penned three political thrillers about deranged President Dick Monckton and his noble advisors. One, The Company, inspired the 1977 miniseries Washington Behind Closed Doors, starring Cliff Robertson and Jason Robards. Hilariously, he became a pitchman for Dreyer's ice cream in the late '80s. Deceased in 1999, Ehrlichman recently returned to the news, with Dan Baum claiming he admitted the War on Drugs was a sham.
Book Reviews: The Sad, Sorry World of Watergate MemoirsH.R. Haldeman fares no better in The Ends of Power (1978), co-written with journalist Joseph DiMona. Nixon's brush-cut chief-of-staff relates tepid anecdotes (this book's the source of Nixon's famous "Madman Theory" comment) while wondering whether Watergate was the work of Democrats or the CIA framing Nixon. While toying with conspiracism, Haldeman ultimately accepts Nixon's responsibility.
Haldeman's insinuations nonetheless seeped into culture. Oliver Stone's Nixon drew upon Haldeman's book for its absurd theory: Stone claims the missing 18 1/2 minutes of tape contain information on the Kennedy Assassination. Conspiracy theorists, from Geoff Shepherd to Jesse Ventura, still parrot variants today. Nixon staffers aren't the only ones who take comfort in delusion.
An advertising exec turned enforcer, Bob Haldeman wasn't a nice man (calling himself "the President's pluperfect SOB"), a ginger ale guzzling Christian Scientist lacking humor or likeability. Nonetheless, his Haldeman Diaries (1994) remains one of the best sources for Nixon researchers. And at least Haldeman showed some contrition, even if his son claims he was framed.
Book Reviews: The Sad, Sorry World of Watergate MemoirsChuck Colson, Nixon's king of dirty tricks, became a born again Christian before landing in prison. There's no reason to doubt Colson's sincerity: he created the Prison Fellowship, bringing Christianity to inmates across America, and became an evangelical minister. Which doesn't make Born Again (1976) any less insufferable.
It's not that Colson denies or excuses his campaigns against Daniel Ellsberg, Arthur Burns and Nixon's Democratic rivals. It's that he considers them irrelevant, secondary to his finding God through C.S. Lewis, befriending Democratic Senator Harold Hughes and spreading the Word to fellow prisoners. While understandable, it's also smug and self-defeating: Colson sold his memoir because of his notoriety, not his faith.
Inevitably, Born Again inspired an awful movie starring Dean Jones, which I reviewed here. There is no greater monument to Colson's folly than being played by the star of The Love Bug. Colson died in 2012, unable to live down Watergate.
Book Reviews: The Sad, Sorry World of Watergate MemoirsFrom the insipid to the insane, we turn to G. Gordon Liddy. Will (1980) shows the failed FBI Agent and attorney-turned Plumber as a lunatic obsessed with Nietzsche, Hitler, guns and violent fantasies. He relates his fascination with Nazism, burning his hand over an open flame, firing a pistol during a trial, threatening to kill colleagues with pencils and plotting journalist Jack Anderson's murder.
Liddy's the Dale Gribble of the Nixon White House. A paranoid nutcase possessing "literally oodles of guns," convinced he's a memetic badass while stumbling from failure to failure. Even Howard Hunt with his terrible novels and ridiculous wigs evinced more dignity. Somehow, this blundering wannabe Brownshirt envisions himself a defender of democracy, making him an ideal Nixon acolyte.
Naturally, Liddy's scribblings inspired a 1982 TV movie, featuring Robert Conrad as everyone's favorite Plumber. Shaving his head but not his mustache, Liddy parlayed his Watergate notoriety into a lengthy career as an author, conspiracy theorist, talk radio host, gold salesman and occasional actor.
Book Reviews: The Sad, Sorry World of Watergate MemoirsWorse even than Liddy is Spiro Agnew's Go Quietly... Or Else (1980). Nixon's alliterative Vice President proves both terrible writer and petulant whiner, convinced his conviction for bribery was a conspiracy conjured by Nixon, Attorney General Elliot Richardson and assorted liberals. Agnew denies guilt while tacitly admitting it, then argues that Nixon sent Alexander Haig to threaten his life. That, I almost believe.
Agnew cut his literary teeth on The Canfield Decision (1976), a hilarious novel about an Arab-Jewish-Soviet-liberal conspiracy to destroy America. This sub-Robert Ludlum thriller is marred by  childish intrigue (an Arab terrorist group named DAMN), blockheaded prose, anti-Semitic fillips, rants about the Domino Theory and hippie debauchery, and the least-erotic sex scenes ever. To wit:
His inexperienced, blundering early crescendo mortified him and might have left him with much to overcome in the future, but her matter-of-fact patience and experience re-erected the fallen structure. In time, he drove her home proudly, colors flying.

Somehow, this masterpiece never inspired a film. Hollywood, what are you waiting for?

Book Reviews: The Sad, Sorry World of Watergate Memoirs

William Safire

Sadly, the pickings for quality memoirs are slim. William Safire's Before the Fall (1975) and Leonard Garment's Crazy Rhythm (1997) are at least well-written and readable. Perhaps because their authors were on the periphery of Nixon's White House, they aren't burdened with defending their boss and excusing their actions.
Rest assured, the glut of awful Bush Administration reminiscences shows that unrepentant political memoirs are here to stay. What wonders await us from Barack Obama's White House?

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